Agency and CCW dispute impacts of power station

The government’s decision to give consent for a new power station has highlighted a dispute between the Environment Agency and the Countryside Council for Wales. The regulators disagree over the impact of the plant’s cooling water on protected estuarine habitats.

A dispute has erupted between the Environment Agency and the government’s conservation adviser, the Countryside Council for Wales (CCW), over the impacts of cooling water from a £800 million power station to be built by RWE Npower near Pembroke, South Wales. The gas-fired plant will discharge cooling water into Milford Haven, an estuary protected under the EU habitats Directive.

On 5 February, the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) gave RWE Npower consent to build the 2,000-megawatt power station on the site of an old oil-fired plant. The company hopes to commission the new facility in 2012.

RWE Npower intends to abstract and discharge up to 40 cubic metres of seawater per second, almost 3.5 million m3 per day, into the estuary. This rate is equivalent to the flow of a large river. The discharge will be 9°C warmer than the river and contain a biocide used to keep the plant’s cooling system clean.

CCW is concerned the cooling system could damage the marine ecosystem and the wildlife depending on it, including otters, seals and birds. The abstraction also threatens to kill fish and other aquatic organisms sucked up into the cooling system.

Conservation regulations require the Agency to ensure that new industrial developments will have "no adverse effect" on protected habitats. Its positive assessment informed DECC’s decision to consent the new power station under the Electricity Act 1989 and the issuing of an abstraction licence in December.

The Agency is also responsible for issuing an environmental permit for the new plant under the Pollution Prevention and Control regime. This should specify requirements to control pollution based on best available techniques (BAT) recommended in EU BAT reference guidance called BREFs.

The BREF on industrial cooling indicates BAT for coastal power stations is a once-through seawater cooling system. For sites without access to a large body of water, an alternative, recirculating cooling system may be applicable. These systems abstract and discharge much less water.

Simon Bareham, CCW’s senior pollution and climate change adviser, said Milford Haven is a highly sensitive location. It is a long estuary with limited tidal exchange, not an open coastline where once-through cooling is often used. Other power stations located on rivers or estuaries such as the Dee and Severn use alternative systems, he said.

Research on power station cooling commissioned by CCW suggests the BREF, written in 2001 and due for revision this year, is out of date. Mr Bareham said there is evidence that power stations in California with once-through cooling systems have ‘sterilised’ large areas of coastal waters and are being required to fit alternative systems.

Mr Bareham said: "It is quite clear that there is reasonable doubt as to what the long-term cumulative impacts might be." He added: "We believe that the report we commissioned clearly shows that direct cooling is not the appropriate option at this site and that is why we objected to the proposal."

But the Agency does not share CCW’s concerns. Its assessment document, published in December 2008, says CCW’s advice "is overly precautionary, unsuitable for our appropriate assessment and takes an unrealistic view of the risks posed by the proposed abstraction".

The Agency’s assessment accepts there will be "minimal impacts" from the proposed cooling system which will "have the potential for a small effect" on the conservation area. But it concludes "there will not be an adverse effect on the integrity of the special area of conservation".

The Agency’s licence requires RWE Npower to fit measures to mitigate the impact of the abstraction including screens and deterrent devices to protect fish.

DECC’s decision document says the Agency has twice changed its mind over whether the power station would have an adverse effect in drafts of its assessment document. In a statement, the Agency said this is because "we retain an open mind and consider all information submitted by the applicant… and consultees, as well as comments from the public, until the determination of an environmental permit is complete". The Agency refused to discuss the issue further with ENDS.

DECC says the Secretary of State "notes with disappointment" that the Agency and CCW could not reconcile their differences despite months of talks and a formal dispute resolution procedure which ended with both parties "agreeing to disagree".

DECC’s decision document reviews CCW’s objections to the proposed cooling system. It concludes the Secretary of State "disagrees with calls to refuse section 36 consent on the ground that the direct seawater cooling system would have an adverse affect on the integrity of a European site".

Mr Bareham said: "DECC’s decision has addressed some of the issues we raised, but we still have some concerns about the cumulative impacts on the long-term integrity and viability of the site."

In a statement, RWE Npower said it agreed with the Agency’s assessment but refused to comment further.

DECC’s decision looks unlikely to end the dispute. It says the Secretary of State is not obliged to consider BAT when consenting new power stations; that is an issue for the Agency’s environmental permit. Pressure is likely to increase on the Agency and RWE Npower to reconsider cooling methods at the site.

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